Sermon for December 9th, 2012
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Prepare the Way: Looking Back
Once upon a time. Isn't that how every good story begins? Those famous words are actually a very intentional storytelling device, to accomplish a very specific purpose, although they do it so subtly that most of us don't realize what they are doing, or think too much about it. Once upon a time. With those four words, any connection a story might have to a specific time, a specific history, is obliterated. Once upon some vague time, somewhere in the past... it could be thirty years ago, it could be three thousand years ago. Once upon a time. George Lucas accomplishes the same thing in the preface to each of his Star Wars films: When do they take place? Oh, a long, long time ago. Not really sure exactly when. Where do they take place? Oh, in a galaxy far, far away. Somewhere you've probably never heard of... Once upon a time.
Today's story--the story of John the Baptist, the one who "prepares the way" for the coming of the Messiah--today's story has an altogether different sort of beginning: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galillee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high preisthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." How's that for specific? Time, place, cultural context, political context, religious context, and even family context are all minutely present and recorded in the beginning of this story. And I think there are some very good reasons for this.
The Gospel of Luke tells the story of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. All four Gospels do this, but each has its own authorial style, it's own agenda and emphases, and it's own intended audience. Matthew, for example, is written by a Jewish author to a local Jewish audience (probably in Jerusalem). Both Mark and John seem as thought they were intentionally written to specific congregations-- one in Rome and the other in Ephesus. But Luke alone seems written for a broader audience, one that encompassed all the known Mediterranean civilizations of the time. The author of Luke seems particularly concerned with the broad arc of history, and how his story fits within that history.
You can almost imagine, as Luke begins his story, a wide-angle camera shot of the Mediterranean that slowly zooms in on its subject, so that anyone from any part of the world could place the story in the proper context: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius... that's the Roman Emperor, the ruler of most of the known world... when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee... now we're zooming in to specific regions in the Roman Empire... during the high preisthood of Annas and Caiaphas... now we're in a specific part of Judea: Jerusalem, where the temple and the high priests would reside... the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness... Now the camera pans slightly over, to the wilderness outside Jerusalem, and comes to rest at last, focused clearly on one lone person: John.
But Luke is concerned with more than just geography. He's also giving you history. In both the Old and New Testaments, dates aren't measured in the familiar B.C. or A.D. years of our modern Gregorian Calendar. They are measured in rulers and spiritual leaders: In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius . . . during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. These are dates. And for Luke's original audience, they aren't recent dates, either. We don't know exactly when the Gospel of Luke was written, but we know it was at least sometime after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. That means Luke is writing about events that took place at least 50 years earlier. That would be like me telling you a story set in the 1950s. Some of us here today may remember the 50s, some of us don't, but to all of us by now the 1950s are already well into that period of time we refer to as... history. Luke is not writing "news" or "current events," he's writing history. He is taking his audience on a journey into the past.
But Luke isn't the only one looking into the past. His central character for this part of the story--John the Baptist--is also pointing to the past. When we are first introduced to John, he is not John the Baptist: "during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." He is the son of Zechariah, a reference to his ancestry, to his past. He proclaims a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." John, of course, is Jewish and the Hebrew word for repentance is תשובה (t'shuva), which literally means to return; go back the way you came; go back... to the past. Even the very first words we hear out of John's mouth--Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight--these sound like future-oriented words, until you notice where they come from: They don't come from John himself; he is directly quoting the greatest prophet of ancient Israel, Isaiah. He speaks with the voice of the past.
Truthfully, John the Baptist is not all about the past. He begins there, but as next week's sermon will discuss, he moves his audience quickly into the here and now of the present. And there is clearly a future-oriented aspect to his message of prepare the way; get ready for the one who is to come. I'm going to great lengths today to point out his backwards-looking focus because I think it's the easiest to miss if we're not paying attention. John the baptist is truly a transitional figure, located at a pivotal point in the Bible. Immediately to one side of him is the entirety of the Old Testament, the past stretching back all the way to Genesis and the creation story. Immediately to the other side of him is Jesus Christ and the entirety of the New Testament, stretching forward all the way to the book of Revelation and a future we have not yet realized.
Last week, as we began the season of Advent, we talked about the future; how Advent looks forward with hope and anticipation of what is yet to come. I think that's pretty self-evident, and we're used to hearing about Advent as a time of preparation for the coming (or second coming) of the Messiah. But just as Luke takes us back in time to the history of his story, and just as John the Baptist points back in time to those who came before, so too Advent is a time for us to pause and look back into our past, into our history as individuals, families, a church, and a people.
As you prepare your hearts and minds for the coming of Christmas, I hope you also take some time to reflect on the year that is drawing to a close. For some of us, it was a good year with new opportunities and blessings. Recognizing and remembering that past is one way of giving thanks to God, from whom all blessings flow. For others, the past year has been a hard one, with unexpected challenges, with difficult loss, and painful sorrow. Recognizing and remembering that past, too, is an important part of letting go, of placing those challenges, that loss, in God's hands, who is infinitely more capable of taking care of it (and of us) than we are.
As you prepare your hearts and minds for the coming of the Christ-Child, I hope you also take some time to reflect and remember those in your own past who, like John the Baptist and the prophet Isaiah, pointed the way to Jesus for you, and influenced you in your own faith journey. Remember and give thanks for those you have shared Christmas with through the years, and those who made it possible for you share Christmas with others this year and in the years to come.
As you prepare your hearts and minds and lives for the Messiah who will come again, I hope you also take time to find your place in the history of God's story--a story that connects you in an unbroken line to all the saints in every age who have gone before you. Your faith, our faith, is an ancient one with deep roots, with traditions and treasures and blessings from the past. Remember them this Advent season, and hear the voice of John the Baptist, saying "t'shuva," go back. Return to the past. Come back to the heart of your faith. Return to the heart of your church. Come back to the one who makes the valleys high and the mountains low; the crooked straight and the rough ways smooth. Remember this Advent season, and return to the arms of your Savior: Come back to Jesus Christ.